Red Cloud’s Mark Almond has his say on the complex world of industry marketing

Some of the best advice I have ever been given was ‘when the world changes around you, just listen and you’ll find your way’. While that all sounds very mysterious and ‘zen’, the principle applies perfectly to the retail landscape and indeed to any company in any industry looking to sustain and grow their business.

The retail landscape is changing. We all know that. Online is now a dominant force, customers are consuming media and making purchasing decisions in a very different way while competition seems to be growing by the day. This is all true and, like it or not, needs to be accepted. In fact, don’t just accept it, embrace it! Change is good as long as you listen and act accordingly.

Knowing your customer
This is where marketing comes in. Marketing is not just about promotion and telling people how great your product is. It is primarily about understanding what your customer wants and then giving them a solution at a mutually acceptable price. To do this, you need to understand your consumer.

So speak to them! Studying sales patterns and loyalty scheme purchases are a starting point, but go beyond that. If you run a shop ride for example – a great way in itself to promote customer loyalty – use this opportunity to offer demos and see what the reactions are. Ask the riders about their cycling plans for the year, get their opinions on the bike world and their perceived place within it, and don’t be afraid to ask them what you can do to be a better shop for them.

Formal research goes beyond this, but again can be made fun and informal so that your customers don’t feel pressured to give you the answers they think you want. How about a cycling film evening with a quick Q&A session beforehand? Be even more creative and invite a local musician in or a local rider who’s just completed a once in a lifetime ride for a talk – use this to ask planned questions to your audience. Engage with them and they will soon open up and give you some amazing insight. It also strengthens their connection with your store as they feel valued and that their input is appreciated.

So, now you know your customer, but what next? Simple. Give them what they want because if you don’t, someone else will. This is where it starts to get confusing for many businesses. We are all faced with daily decisions as to which supplier to use, which brand to stock, how to promote those brands and so on. Yes, we now know what our customer wants, but how can we get it to them and still make enough money to pay the bills?
It’s a minefield, but one that is easy to negotiate if you break it down. So, here are a few tips and ideas to hopefully help you navigate your way to sales success.

Supplier relationships
Customers come first, but what about your suppliers? You need to be efficient and focused to meet your consumers’ needs – are your current suppliers helping you do this or are they inflexible or unresponsive? There is a wide choice of brands out there, many of which will fit within what your identified consumer needs are, so choose and manage these effectively. Remember, every company, whatever their place in the industry, has to satisfy their customers’ requirements to be successful and in this case, you are the customer. But also please remember my opening definition of marketing (‘mutually acceptable price’). Just as with your customer relationships, supplier relationships are two-way. It has to work for all parties, but with strong consideration and appreciation of the end user at all times.

USP: identify and communicate
What makes you different and how can you satisfy your market’s needs differently to your competition? Note the use of the word ‘differently’, not better. The customer alone decides which is better. So, for example, can you offer a service that your main competitors cannot? Do you offer a social scene perhaps, or are you supporting grassroots cycling in your area? Are you based at a ride spot or trail centre? Identify what makes you different and how you can best use this USP and communicate it.

Before you start your communications, audit what you do already. For example, does your brand fit with what your market has now told you they want? Your brand is the first communication any customer will have with your company. Then, in an online world, your website and social media feeds are likely to be the next thing they see. Do these represent what your customer wants too? Once you get people into the shop, your shop front, counter and POS are communicating with them. Do these fit in with the desired message? Audits like this are where I often start my discussions with my clients and are always the basis for any marketing plan I prepare for them going forward. If your customer can see, feel or hear it, then they will form an opinion of you and your business based on it, so be coordinated and speak ‘as one’ in every communication whether visual, written or spoken. If in doubt, and often worth doing anyway, try auditing your competitors (and suppliers) as a consumer yourself and you will see exactly what I mean.

Your website and social media are subjects all to themselves and need close management and development as part of this audit and then ongoing.
However, a quick tip for your website is this most basic of questions. Do you want to sell online or not? If you do, you’re competing with the well-known online giants, so find a very unique USP that they haven’t got and play to your strengths. For example, could you offer click and collect? Free fitting for a component bought via your website in-store perhaps? The options are many, but you need to find something unique to you. I would also advise using your online communications to tell people about your shop rides, your community and perhaps some customer galleries and features. Blog your cycling adventures and show customers how much you love cycling. You’re then no longer a faceless retailer, you’re a fellow cyclist.

Walk the walk
You are telling people how you can meet their needs as a cycling business involved and engaged with the cycling world. Now get out there and back it up.

Go to events, meet local people, network. Identify local cycling ambassadors and work with them, support local initiatives such as new bike infrastructure and work with schools to get their pupils on to two wheels. Engage with your local market and be the personality that all your other communications say you are as a business. Words are cheap and a competitor is only a Google search away, so back those words up and be what your market wants you to be.

There is no shortcut to marketing. It is a long, involved and daily process but if done correctly the steps I have outlined here will set you up with a strong enough foundation to adapt and weather any future storms. Build your marketing plan and promotional activities around this foundation, stay true to your market as it evolves (and it will, so monitor it ongoing) and keep moving forwards.

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